From the Words of Snoopy:
“Good Writing is Hard Work!”
by Beth Knoedelseder,
Silver Strong & Associates Thoughtful Classroom Trainer/UMSL Adjunct Instructor
There is a Peanuts comic where Snoopy is sitting on top of his doghouse with a typewriter. He types one word, stops, and paces back and forth on top of his doghouse. He types one more word, repeats the sequence until he has typed: “It was a dark and stormy night.” In the last frame, Snoopy stops typing and thinks to himself Good writing is hard work! Snoopy makes a good point about “good writing,” and most students and teachers would strongly agree with this thought. Writing is not only important to have in lessons-it is a necessity. But teachers often wonder how it all can be completed and graded along with all the other requirements they have to get through in a day’s work. What would you think if I told you that you can move your students’ thinking from “Good writing is hard work,” to “Good writing is what I do?”
Like anything that is “hard work,” the more one does it, the easier and better it becomes. I am a trainer for Silver Strong & Associates The Thoughtful Classroom. We train teachers how to use a variety of tools and strategies to enhance learning and create deep thinkers. One of the most effective strategies the Thoughtful Classroom teaches is called Write to Learn. Making writing a daily event in your classroom will not only improve the thinking of your students considerably; it will help deepen their comprehension and help them to organize their thoughts in a productive and efficient way. By using this research-based strategy, you can help your students in more ways than you could ever imagine.
Picture this classroom: The teacher poses a question. After a little bit of wait time, the teacher scans the room for raised hands and calls on the students who are always the first to answer the question. For those students who tend to be on the shy side or just need a little more time for processing their thoughts, they are left out of an important part of the lesson. Some might even think to themselves, Why should I think of an answer when the kids who sits next to me always comes up with one first? What tends to happen is the same students are the ones participating in the discussions. Only their thoughts, opinions, and comments are being heard.
Now, go next door to this classroom: The teacher poses the same question. She then asks the students to write their responses/thoughts in their learning logs. After an orchestrated amount of time, she instructs the students to turn to their neighbor and share their thoughts they wrote. Then there is an opportunity for the students to share with the entire class either what they wrote or someone else’s ideas. Let’s think about the differences between these two scenarios.
In the first classroom, not everyone had the opportunity to share, nor were they held accountable for his or her thinking. When the same students are answering, and participating in the discussion, then there is little variety of thoughts to expand upon. Students who are shy might have a unique thought or idea that takes the discussion to a new level. This opportunity will be missed when the teacher calls on the same students who are the first to raise their hands. In the second classroom, the pace of the lesson has slowed down, therefore giving all the students time to think and process the question. Time was given to think more thoroughly and then shared in a small setting. The children who are shy, are more likely to share in a small group rather than to the whole class. Also, everyone was held accountable for his or her thinking. Often times, a student will have a great thought, but by the time he or she is called upon to answer, the thoughts are gone. When writing down their thinking, they now have it in front of them to respond thoroughly.
There is a video I show in my UMSL class of Suli, a spoken word artist, who performs, “I Hate School, but Love Education.” It is a thought-provoking piece about education. In the past, I would show the video, and then pose a couple of questions for a discussion. The discussions were satisfactory. This year, I had the students write their answers, share them in small groups, and then share with the whole class. The difference between the quality of the discussion from years past to this year was amazing. My students’ thoughts were deeper which caused the discussion to be richer, and more students were willing participants. The major difference was this- I took time to stop, have the students write their thoughts and opinions, share with each other and then share with the whole group. Allowing time for the students to thoroughly process the questions and formulate their opinions on paper, made all of the difference.
Every teacher understands the importance of establishing procedures and routines starting on the first day of school. Just as determining these daily habits at the beginning of the year so too should writing be part of a daily routine. In doing so, students will develop higher order thinking skills, and as a result, test scores will rise. (NASSP Bulletin, Dec. 2000)
Writing is a highly complex act that demands the analysis and synthesis of many levels of thinking. (Center for Performance Assessment, 2006). Harvey Silver (The Core Six Essential Strategies for Achieving Excellence with the Common Core) breaks the Write to Learn Strategy into three different levels. The first being provisional. This is a quick, impromptu writing designed by the teacher that can be completed throughout a lesson. It helps students to think through key concepts and ideas. Students are given the opportunity to write for two to five minutes. The teacher does not grade these spontaneous writing tasks. The focus is on the students’ thoughts and opinions rather than grammar or spelling. This does not mean that the teacher does not collect them to read. It would be his or her prerogative to collect these when he or she feels it is necessary.
For many students, writing can be overwhelming and cumbersome. It’s a challenge that can create panic and cause a student to shut down before even attempting to write the first word. However, if students are required to write short, impromptu informal writing tasks stating their thoughts, opinions, questions, and interpretations on a regular basis, writing becomes more natural and not so overwhelming. When they are not required to complete this type of writing on a regular basis, but then are assigned writing assignment encompassing all the writing skills necessary to formulate a strong writing piece, students become lost and don’t know where to start. It is like expecting a football team to skip practice on a regular basis, but be expected to win the championship game. It is well known that the more students work on a task and practice it in small chunks, not only will results be stronger, but they will be more comfortable in completing the task. I found this to be true when I taught poetry in grade levels from first through six. Instead of just assigning various poems to write, we spent a great deal of time reading poetry for pure enjoyment. During this reading time, students were exposed to rich vocabulary, rhythms and rhymes that made listening to poetry fun. When my students went to write their own poetry, they were not intimidated by this genre of writing. They experienced the poems through listening, acting out, and through a relaxed time of the day. Results were amazing. I found students diving right in with brainstorming, using visual organizers, and reworking their pieces of writing with positive attitudes. This can be the same for all writing in the classroom. The more writing is required in small, impromptu chunks, the more the teacher will be able to move students to the next level of writing.
Provisional writing can look many different ways in various grade levels. Any time students use journals, learning logs, entrance and exit slips, KWL charts and respond to questions, they are doing provisional writing. The main difference in using these formats is when the teacher uses them during a lesson and not just for homework. Stopping the instruction to have them write down their thoughts, and share them with one another, creates an environment of thinkers. More students have the opportunity to be part of the class discussion and share their thinking. This type of engagement will increase their understanding of the content and help them become stronger writers on the longer writing assignments.
In conclusion, Write to Learn is nothing new to education. Throughout the years, we have learned through research how important daily writing is for our instruction. Now with the Common Core State Standards, teachers are being required to rethink how writing can become more integrated into daily lessons. Give provisional writing a try. See how it impacts your discussions and the engagement of your students. Whether is a first grader using inventive spelling to write down his or her thoughts or a teenager writing short passages in response to a question, writing can look different depending on the grade level. The most important thing to remember is to make writing a daily habit. Snoopy reminds us that “good writing is hard work.” This goes without saying, but let’s help students work hard to create “good writing” and at the same time create deep thinkers. It’s a win-win situation.
Silver, Harvey R., Dewing, Thomas R., Perini, Mathew J. The Core Six Essential Strategies for Achieving Excellence with the Common Core. Alexandria: ASCD, 2012
Center for Performance Assessment. “Writing to Learn: Instructional Strategies for Nonfiction Writing”. Center for Performance Assessment. Static.dpsk12.org/gems/leadership/NFwritinghandouts103106.pdf
Michigan Department of Education. “Writing Across the Curriculum”. Michigan Department of Education. www.michigan.gov/document/mde/SSWAC_225020_7.pdf